by France-Luce Benson
As we all hunker down, I’ve been thinking a lot about home. As a playwright/performer, I’ve lived a kind of gypsy lifestyle for most of my adulthood. Home is wherever the gig happens to be. For the last year and a half, home is Los Angeles. Of course, in Los Angeles, I can’t think about home without thinking of the millions of men, women, and children who are experiencing homelessness today. As our public officials urge us all to “stay home”, rightfully so, I can’t help but wonder what that means for those who don’t have a home.
Like many theatres across the country, The Fountain made the painful decision to suspend performances of Human Interest Story, which grappled with several issues around homelessness. Sadly, this also meant cancelling all of our BID events, including a panel discussion with representatives from several homeless relief organizations in our community.
Although the show cannot go on, we’ve decided to keep the conversation going with one of our esteemed panelists, John Billingsley. As the Board President of Hollywood Food Coalition, Billingsley knows firsthand about what it means to be on the front lines of the fight to end homelessness in L.A.
FLB: First, can you please tell us about Hollywood Food Coalition’s mission and what services you provide:
Billingsley: Every night of the year we serve the most immediate needs of people in our community: we provide a healthy and nutritious five course meal to all comers, no questions asked (soup, salad, choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian entree, fruit, bread, desserts, milk, water). We also distribute shoes, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, bus passes, laundry vouchers, toiletry kits, and etc. We have medical, dental and vision vans from UCLA visiting our campus on a regular basis. We are secular, but we serve our meal on the campus of the Salvation Army, (in one of their two dining halls) and we also help clients access way cool stuff provided by other community social service organizations (our neighbors and buds). Additionally, insofar as we rescue approximately 7000 pounds of food a week, we aim to distribute the food we cannot use to other Not For Profits serving our community.
FLB: What led you to Hollywood Food Coalition?
Billingsley: Approximately 4 years ago, apres the disastrous 2016 election, I was looking for ways to get more involved in my community. In addition to doing some political fundraising, I started making bad fruit salads at the Hollywood Food Coalition. (I washed dishes badly, as well). I was foolish enough to shoot off my mouth a bit about ways to grow the board, raise more moolah, blah blah blah . . . and now I’m the Board President! It (almost) reaffirms my faith in America. Or, perversely, makes me question the sanity of our Executive Director, Sherry Bonanno.
FLB: What has been your focus as Board President?
Billingsley: We believe food is a medium for coalition building. My specific interest revolves around what it means to build coalitions, to make pals, to get to know our non-for-profit neighbors. We’re interested in helping to bring NFP’s in our community together to collaborate, where possible, on ‘common actions’, like we’re doing with The Fountain Theatre. We’re interested in exploring mechanisms by which we can further each other’s missions: Can we help you do what you do better? Can you help us do what we do better? How?
FLB: In Stephen Sachs’ play, Human Interest Story, the Jane Doe character offers a raw look at the realities of homelessness. She talks about being assaulted, feeling invisible, and the stigma attached to homelessness. In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge homeless men and women face?
Billingsley: First off, and apropos of nothing – ‘people who re experiencing homelessness’ is a more artful construction, I have been taught – when we use the term ‘homeless’, and God knows we all use it, we kinda consign people to a bit of a Dante-esque ‘circle’, a ‘home’, oddly enough . . .
People go through shit.
One can say: I am going through this time in my life, I am experiencing yada yada yada . . . it’s subtly, but legitimately, different than saying: I am a this. I am a that. People ain’t homeless. They’re living a particular kind of life, they’re experiencing homelessness at this time in their life . One hopes that they will be living a different kind of life soon.
But to answer your question:
The biggest challenge homeless people face is the biggest challenge most of us face: the folks who rule our country, and many other countries around the world, actively attempt to delegitimize, if not actively dehumanize, people who don’t agree with them, or look like them, or in any way challenge their values or their hold on power. The challenge we all face, or can’t even begin to face (or intellectually recognize) is a deep and internalized acquiescence in the face of systemic and organized political disenfranchisement; perhaps to the perpetuation of our own diminution.
FLB: What are some of the misconceptions people have about people experiencing homelessness?
Billingsley: The thing I think that does the most damage to our ability, as a society, to figure out how to help people who are unhoused, is the notion that homeless people are dangerous. Hurt, lonely, isolated, scared, damaged, hard to reach even? Sure. But rarely dangerous. ‘Scary’ is a word people use to hide from what they are really feeling, which is disgust: disgust feels bad, it feels judgmental, it feels like you are a weenie who can’t bear to look at somebody who is living in squalor . . . so we transmogrify disgust into fear . . . Fear legitimizes recoil. Recoil = flight. Flight = inaction.
FLB: Well, in the spirit of “action” and activism, please tell us how we can help Hollywood Food Coalition. What do you need? What can we do?
Billingsley: For those who want to get involved in the big-picture, consider joining our board.
For everyone else…
Like every other small, understaffed non-profit, we rely on volunteers and we need support on all levels. My job is to help grow our organization by inviting people into our ‘home’ and utilizing their individual, specialized skills.
Admin skills? We need it.
We could use food detectives to discover places that want to donate food.
We could use ‘moolah detectives (development pros) to help us discover places (corporations, foundations, etc.) who might want to help us with dough.
We could use storytellers and tin-pot-bangers, who’d be willing to go out into the community and introduce us, and our work, to the Shriners and the Elks and the Masons and the Rotary Clubs and College Groups and Civic organizations of all stripes.
We could use people to throw parties for us. We could use caterers and entertainers who’d donate their services at parties. We could use people who would invite their friends to these parties.
We could use writers, and graphic artists, and people with extensive experience in public relations and press relations, to help build up our deck, our press kit, etc – to expand the quality and the size of our megaphone.
We could use people who like to tweet, to tweet about us.
We could use people who like to Instagram, to Instagram about us.
We could use people who like to wrangle to become advocates, not just for us, but for the future of social service provision in our city.
FLB: It occurs to me that people experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable during this Coronavirus pandemic. Is there anything we can do specifically to help during this time?
Billingsley: All of the above applies. We are still open, although we have moved to a ‘take out’ (as opposed to a sit-down-dinner) model. And our work will continue even should we be shut down. We might, for instance, want to continue to try to share food with other organizations that remain open. Advocacy is a must: the cancellation of public events is an economic and a social tragedy, but in light of the realities of viral spread, it’s an understandable necessity.
Until or unless governmental agents assume full responsibility for housing, protecting, feeding, caring for the 55K people who are living on the streets, we can’t stop serving our community. I get that it’s a scary time. Volunteering for us right now means taking a big risk, and I certainly understand why some might not want to take that risk. But the truth is, certain things still have to be provided . . . and if not me, then who . . .? Folks who want to volunteer for us are, in my opinion, volunteering to serve on the front lines of a community ‘triage’ event right now. When everybody is being asked to isolate, it feels scary to be in a room with a lot of folks prepping a meal, storing and sorting food as it comes in . . . scary to be handing food out to people . . . but that’s what life asks of us at times like this; to do scary things in service of others.
My initial impulse is always to say that food donations, while groovy, are less critical to us than moolah. However, this is such a fluid time that I hesitate to say something today that may not prove true tomorrow. We have always been able to acquire food, paper products, and the like at lower costs than other people likely can. Consequently, we’ve been able to make the money people donate for food stretch farther. But as supplies become scarcer, I can no longer say that with certitude. As of now, our budget has increased by $2-3 thousand a month because we are now providing meals to go instead of serving people in our dining rooms. That said, dollar donations are especially needed at this time.
FLB: We at The Fountain believe that productions like Human Interest Story might raise awareness, effect change, and provide hope. So I appreciate all that you’ve shared to here to inform and inspire. Now, I’d love if you had a message of hope. What’s one of the most memorable, hopeful, experiences you’ve had working with Hollywood Food Coalition?
Billingsley: While I help out in the kitchen upon occasion, and rescue food upon occasion, I am first and foremost a volunteer administrator – which means I didn’t get to see this myself, but it’s one of my favorite stories: We had a guy visit us who had never been to an ophthalmologist – we got him into a great one, and paid for his first pair of glasses; ever. When he put them on he started to cry because he’d never realized what it meant to see the world clearly.
FLB: One last thing you’d like to share?
Billingsley: For what it’s worth, and if you’ve never read it, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, is one of the best books I’ve ever read about how corruption and systemic disenfranchisement, rooted in racism and nationalism, keeps people – intentionally – in poverty. While set in India, it is universal in its scope and in its message.
One in five kids in our country (arguably, depending on how you want to interpret the stats) is food insecure, one in five Americans over the age of 60 doesn’t have a buck in the bank saved for their retirement. When we say that we want to fight homelessness, frequently what we mean is that we want to eliminate having to SEE homeless people. If they disappeared from our view, they would not be gone . They would just be hidden.
For more info about Hollywood Food Coalition, and how you can get involved, please visit: https://hofoco.org/
France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.